Weathering the Improvisation at the 2011 Umbrella Music Festival (part 2)

**Part 1 of Hurd’s coverage of the 2011 Umbrella Music Festival is available here.

Sten Sandell
Sten Sandell

Sten Sandell sat down at the Steinway in Preston-Bradley Hall at the Chicago Cultural Center.  As the featured solo performer on the fourth of five sets of music on the second day of Chicago’s Umbrella Music Festival, the expectations of the audience were high.  Each of the three earlier sets that day had already revealed new avenues of creativity and featured world-class collaborations.  The introduction from the consulate of Sweden had outlined Sandell’s impressive credentials—citing his studies at the Academy of Music in Stockholm and his extensive recordings, tours, and collaborations with many high-profile improvisers across Europe.  Now it was time for the music to win over the sophisticated listeners in the audience whose ears had been calibrated by the excellent performances that the Umbrella Music organization facilitates year round.  Sandell began with sparse, unassuming textures.  Subtle, irregular patterns realized at a pianissimo volume that often trailed off toward something even quieter.  As his music drew ears closer to the restrained details of his improvisation, I moved physically closer to take a photograph for this column–waiting patiently for a louder passage to mask the shutter click of the camera.  In that moment he added his unique vocalization to the sound and entered into a resonant zone that made for a transcendent experience.  Building slowly and consistently outward from simple materials and patterns, Sandell realized a music that draws equal parts from the piano improvisations of Frederic Rzewski and Cecil Taylor.  Sten Sandell’s music mines the creative overlap of multiple modern aesthetics.  It’s not just an awareness of the music of Morton Feldman and Bill Evans that informs his sound as it is the clear absorption of those musics into a distilled sound that transfixed those gathered in the hall.  It cast a spell that stopped me in my tracks as I absorbed the other-worldly qualities of the music.

Thomas Heberer's Clarino: Pascal Niggenkemper (bass)
Thomas Heberer’s Clarino: Pascal Niggenkemper (bass)

Sandell’s performance was a highlight in an evening of music filled with creative risks that panned out with startling regularity. The evening began with the Jan Maksimowicz Quartet (featuring David Boyken on tenor and soprano saxophones, Josh Abrams on bass, and Tim Daisy on drums with the Lithuanian soprano saxophonist at the helm) exploring an expansion of the 1960s jazz avant-garde.  This was followed by a collaborative duo between two eccentrics: Chicago’s Jim Baker on piano and ARP 2600 analog modular synthesizer with Spanish percussionist Ramon Lopez working the drum kit, tabla, and hand drums.  There was also music from the great trio of Italy’s Francesco Bigoni on saxophones with the Chicago rhythm section of Jake Vinsel on bass and Frank Rosaly on drums.  Theirs was a trio that featured chart-driven improvisation that resonated with these ears.  In the wake of Sten Sandell’s amazing solo set, the Thomas Heberer Clarino (Thomas Heberer on trumpet, Joachim Badenhorst on bass clarinet, and Pascal Niggenkemper on bass) closed out the evening with a highly developed sonic language reflected in their graphic scores.  The variety of instrumentation, textures, and sources of creative inspiration had been eclectic, challenging, and rewarding.  And the Umbrella Music Festival still had further depths of intensity in store for the three nights ahead.

The headliners of the Umbrella Music Festival come out to play on the nights the music returns to its standard haunts.  The performances on those three days focus on established local groups mixed in with visiting players who have had a profound influence on the Chicago improvised music scene.  This was particularly the case at Elastic Arts on the third night for three sets of saxophone-centered music.  Beginning with one of Chicago’s most thrilling groups, the Nick Mazzarella Trio (Mazzarella on alto saxophone, Anton Hatwich on bass, and Frank Rosaly on drums) set a high standard for energy and polish.  Mazzarella channels both the vocal qualities of Ornette Coleman’s alto playing as well as the excitement that made those 1960s Coleman trios so vital.  This was followed by a solo set of John Butcher on tenor and soprano saxophones.  Butcher is a creative technician of the highest order who builds a sound out of extended techniques–especially circular breathing and multiphonics–to realize a colorful line.  The evening then concluded with the Tim Berne Trio (Berne on saxophones, Devin Hoff on bass, and Ches Smith on drums) playing a single, long-form work that owed as much to progressive rock as free jazz.  They were three outstanding players that immediately locked in and navigated the rough edges of Berne’s composition.

The Odean Pope Quartet featuring Marshall Allen

The Odean Pope Quartet featuring Marshall Allen

The fourth day brought the highly anticipated performance of the Odean Pope Quartet with special guest Marshall Allen.  Pope and Allen are veterans with the deepest musical roots and chops of the festival.  The 87-year-young Marshall Allen plays a blistering alto saxophone with more fire than just about anyone.  The opportunity to hear the current leader of the Sun Ra Arkestra playing with a rhythm section of Lee Smith on bass and Craig McIver on drums was one of the great gifts of this year’s Umbrella Music Festival.  Their set mixed in pieces that allowed each player to be featured–including Marshall Allen’s unforgettable solo on the EVI (electronic voltage instrument)–with an expansive range of materials.

Matt Wilson Solo

Matt Wilson, drum set solo

One of my favorite internet memes which ran across the jazz blogs a few years back consisted of platonic love letters written to drummer Matt Wilson (this one was one of my favorites).  These were usually written by jazz musicians longing to play with him.  He is an improviser’s ideal drummer and collaborator.  He brings solid technical skills along with a generous dedication to the music and an enthusiasm that is hard to miss.  The final evening of the Umbrella Music Festival began with a rare solo performance of Matt Wilson on a drum kit.  Even as an unaccompanied soloist, his generosity and dedication to the music is clear.  His music develops outward from an unhurried, steady groove that never fails to reveal the songs behind his solos.  Wilson appears calm behind the kit, even as he is constantly in motion.  He never resorts to flashy displays of technical prowess.  The musicality of his playing is enough to earn one’s appreciation.  It’s the ease with which he flips the snare drum over to play the bottom side like a washboard or scrapes it to sound like he’s scratching a vinyl record.  It’s the spoken words he adds to the texture that reveals the poetic and rhythmic underpinnings of his solo.  It’s the way he gently coaxes the audience into joining him on a few choruses of “I’ll Be There” by the Jackson Five or the way he renders a convincing version of a John Philip Sousa march.  It’s the complete lack of self-indulgence that makes a full set of solo drum music so rewarding while inspiring love letters along the way.

The festival closed out on a sound at the crest of the next wave of jazz to come: the Mary Halvorson Quintet.  The group of Mary Halvorson on guitar, Jonathan Finlayson on trumpet, Jon Irabagon on alto saxophone, Trevor Dunn on bass, and (again) Ches Smith on drums navigated a set of angular, unpredictable compositions that explore intricate arrangements without losing their swing.  Halvorson’s music and her playing have become increasingly more confident over the past couple of years and she hit her stride early in this set.  The aggressive and deliberately off-kilter energy of the rhythm section of Dunn and Smith is an ideal engine for Halvorson’s compositions as they dart wildly between varying densities of sound.  The focal point of her music shifts rapidly between all the players in astonishingly creative ways.  It was a fitting summary for a festival that encompasses and passionately promotes music that sprawls in multiple directions along many vibrant aesthetic lines.

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